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Forest and "Fairy Stuff": Margaret Atwood's Wilderness Tips

by Faye Hammill
(University of Birmingham)

In the 1990s, Margaret Atwood has been able to look back over thirty years of her own writing career, and thirty years of development in Canada's literary culture. She has published a variety of books in the decade: two novels, The Robber Bride (1993) and Alias Grace (1996); a short story collection, Wilderness Tips (1991); a volume of poetry, Morning in the Burned House (1995); and a collection of prose poems and short fictions, Good Bones (1992); plus a "long short story", The Labrador Fiasco (1996); a critical volume, Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995) and a collection of interviews, Conversations (1990). All these texts revisit the staple images, stories, metaphors and preoccupations of Canada's national literature, each time offering a subtly altered perspective and an implicit commentary on Atwood's own earlier writing.

In Wilderness Tips, Atwood's impulse towards retrospection is particularly noticeable. The majority of the stories are told from the point of view of a middle-aged character, and are set in the 1990s with flashbacks as the protagonist thinks over earlier stages of his or her life. Several of the stories engage with the cultural heritage of contemporary Canadians and with the national mythologies which have been produced through art and literature. Other stories explore a different dimension of the literary past by focussing on the cultural scene in Canada in earlier decades, and exploring the impact on art and literature of factors such as the colonial mentality, the philistinism of certain elements of North American society, academic culture and the commercial climate. In what follows, I will draw together these two elements of Atwood's retrospective on her national culture, and my focus will be on her response to Canada's literary past. The stories "Isis in Darkness", "Death by Landscape" and "Wilderness Tips" will be analysed in detail. All three explore the attitudes of different groups of Canadians to their art and literature, and two of the stories also touch on the practical aspects of cultural production. "Isis in Darkness" offers a retrospective glance at the Toronto literary scene in the 1960s and the "Canlit" industry of subsequent decades. "Death by Landscape" sets up intertextual relations with Canadian painting, wilderness writing and literary criticism, and "Wilderness Tips" likewise invokes and interrogates previous Canadian wilderness literature.

Wilderness is described by Coral Ann Howells as "Canada's most popular cultural myth" (Margaret Atwood 21). Rather than exploring the meaning of wilderness itself, "Death by Landscape" and "Wilderness Tips" reflect on its representation in art and writing. As Howells puts it, "by adopting two opposing versions of classic wilderness narrative: the heroic survival story and the story of disaster ... Atwood destabilises any 'truth' about wilderness, for stories may offer different interpretations, which by implication are themselves open to revision" ("Writing Wilderness" 11). It might be added that while "Death By Landscape" considers the myth of nature/wilderness as monstrous, "Wilderness Tips" replaces this with a different set of associations which construct the forest as "virgin" - a place of purity and a refuge from the city. This contrast further destabilizes the meaning of wilderness, and in Atwood's successive versions of it, a self-conscious dialogue with existing traditions of Canadian writing may be discerned. Several of Atwood's 1990s texts, including a number of the stories in Wilderness Tips invoke prior figurations of forest, the North and exploration, emphasizing the political or ideological dimensions of these representations. In this essay, Atwood's relationship with her national literary heritage will be explored in terms of, firstly, her representation of historical shifts in Canada's literary and intellectual climate and, secondly, her re-reading of wilderness mythologies. The first of these aspects predominates in "Isis in Darkness" and the second in "Wilderness Tips" and "Death by Landscape".

"Who would pay a living wage for poetry?": "Isis in Darkness"

"Isis in Darkness" is told from the point of view of a fifty-year-old academic, Richard, and concerns his relationship with a poet called Selena. The two met in their early twenties, when they both used to take part in poetry readings in Toronto. Atwood has made Richard the same age as herself, so that he too can look back at the 1960s as a time when he was a young aspiring writer. The description in "Isis in Darkness" of the coffee-houses where Selena and Richard read their poetry corresponds closely with Atwood's account - given in a 1993 television interview - of her own experience during this period:

in Toronto in the early sixties, poetry was definitely the thing to write, because it was so difficult to get novels published, but there was an audience for poetry ... there were coffee houses where you could give public readings, and I indeed gave them, and nothing will ever be so hard again. It was in a dark room ... always with an espresso machine that went on at your most plangent line, and with toilets that opened into the main room. (Bragg)

Compare the following passage from "Isis in Darkness":

The coffee house was ... up on the second floor of a disused warehouse. ... The walls had been painted black, and there were small tables with checked cloths and dripping candles. It also had an espresso machine, the first one Richard had ever seen. This machine was practically an icon, pointing as it did to other, superior cultures, far from Toronto. But it had its drawbacks. While you were reading your poetry out loud ... Max ... might turn on the machine, adding a whooshing, gurgling sound effect, as of someone being pressure-cooked and strangled. ... [T]he washroom was just a cubicle that opened directly on to the main room. (Wilderness Tips 55-56, 59)

Evidently the details offered in the story are based on fact, although the fictional version has more complex resonances than the interview extract. For example, the word "icon" with its connotation of worship, together with "superior", suggest the colonial deference to established cultures which Atwood has often discussed in speeches and essays. The location of the coffee house in a disused warehouse with primitive toilet facilities also implies that poetry was a fringe form of entertainment which did not attract the general public. Atwood compounds this impression by surrounding Richard with rather philistine characters who have no interest in poetry. Richard describes his first publications in little magazines, and his parents' attitude to them: "he'd heard his old man reading one of his free-verse anti-sonnets out loud to his mother, sputtering with mirth ..."I sink into your eyes", his father roared. ... "Cripes, what's he gonna do when he gets down as far as the tits?" (57). Richard's girlfriend is similarly unimpressed by his literary efforts, even though she "works among books" as a librarian. Her highly practical outlook is summed up with the phrase: "her forte was cataloguing" (66).

This picture of the philistinism of 1960s Canada is reinforced by another story in the Wilderness Tips collection, "Uncles". The protagonist, Susanna, gets her first job in a Toronto newspaper office in the early 'sixties. Most of the other staff are loutish, uncultured individuals who continually mock the "artsy-fartsy" tendencies of their colleague, Percy Marrow. Percy is introduced as follows:

He did most of the cultural things: not that there were many of them in Toronto, in those days. But if a play came to town it was Percy who reviewed it; or a dance company from England, or a visiting string quartet. Percy ... was fond of decrying the provincial tastes and boorishness of the locals. He did jazz too, and film reviews, and sometimes a book. He did these things because nobody else at the paper wanted to do them.

"Percy does all the fairy stuff," was how it was explained to Susanna in the newsroom. (139-140)

While Percy's superciliousness towards "the locals" does not seem to be approved of by the narrator, the attitudes of the other newspaper staff apparently justify his accusations. Their characterization of his work as "fairy stuff" - a phrase with gendered and possibly sexualized associations - certainly implies that they view art, music and books as very marginal subjects.

The philistinism of domestic audiences may provide some excuse for colonial attitudes on the part of Canadian artists, neverthless the primary thrust of "Isis in Darkness" indicts such thinking for retarding the development of Canadian literature. Richard has clearly imbibed certain colonial beliefs about the inferiority of Canadian art. He discovers that Selena "seemed to think it was only a matter of time before she'd be earning enough money to live on" (63) from her writing, and he finds her confidence naive. He wonders, "who would pay a living wage for poetry, especially the kind she wrote? It wasn't in the style of anyone, it didn't sound like anything else. It was too eccentric" (63). For "eccentric", we might read "original" or even "Canadian" - Richard's estimation of the low exchange-value of Selena's poetry is based on its marginality and "ex-centricity": that is, its divergence from the hallowed traditions of American and British writing.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, Canadian poetry was in transition. Having previously relied wholly on foreign models and subjects, poets were now beginning to discover indigenous ones. Selena's poems are about Isis, the Egyptian goddess, but they are set "not in the ancient Middle Kingdom of the Egyptians, but in flat, dingy Toronto, on Spadina Avenue, at night, among the darkened garment factories and delicatessens and bars and pawnshops" (60-61). For Richard, this is a revelation, since, afflicted by a colonial mind-set, he does not see his native place as a proper landscape for poetry. His own poems use rigid, old-fashioned forms: "He'd read his own stuff during the first set of the evening, a group of five sestinas followed by a villanelle. His poems were elegant and intricate" (58). His "influences" are all derived from outside Canada: he has "been dabbling in the French Symbolists" and is in the habit of reciting The Waste Land over his Sunday dinner (56). When he tries to apply his kind of poetic structures to Selena, he finds that they are entirely unsuitable: "He went back to his rented room and composed a sestina to her. It was a dismal effort; it captured nothing about her" (62). Richard is unable to place Selena or her Canadian work within the conventional frameworks that he understands.

Richard gets married to the librarian, writes a doctoral thesis, gets a job teaching undergraduate literature courses and gives up writing poetry. From the comment: "Dead poets were his business, living ones his vice" (70) we infer that the curriculum is composed of canonical, probably European writers. The categorization of living poets as a vice suggests that they are somehow unwholesome and unworthy, yet perversely attractive. Richard develops a contemptuous attitude towards his erstwhile literary habit: "He'd been a freak when he'd had it" (70). Nevertheless, he occasionally still buys little magazines, Canadian ones, presumably, and: "there would be the occasional real poem, and he would catch his breath. Nothing else could drop him through space like that, then catch him; nothing else could peel him open" (70). These poems, some of them Selena's, are his own national literature, whereas the books he teaches at the university are not, and this is perhaps why he feels that: "She [Selena] was something of his own that he had lost" (71). To some extent, Selena also represents the artistic side of Richard's own personality, an aspect of himself which he gradually suppresses.

By the time he meets Selena again, it is 1970 and Richard has "given up even on the little magazines, preferring numbness" (72). Seeing her so unexpectedly, Richard realizes how suburban and conventional he must appear, with his paunch, mortgage and lawnmower, in contrast to the poverty-stricken but still creative Selena, who tells him she has published two volumes of poetry. Richard feels himself to be diminished by his abandonment of writing. Ten years later, he has his last encounter with Selena, who has started drinking and become disillusioned. It seems that she was indeed naive to expect to derive a "living wage" from writing poetry. She is destitute and has also failed to earn respect from the literary establishment. When she says she hates poetry, Richard goes "cold with dread ... It was like a blasphemy, it was like an act of desecration" (78-79). In other words, Selena was Richard's ideal of the true artist, and she has not lived up to his imagined version of her.

After Selena has died, Richard, now aged fifty, takes her work as his new academic specialism, and the closing section of the story includes a wry commentary on the processes of the Canadian literary establishment:

Now that she's dead ... she's become newly respectable. In several quarterly reviews the country has been lambasted for its indifference towards her, its witholding of recognition during her lifetime. There's a move afoot to name a parkette after her, or else a scholarship, and the academics are swarming like bootflies. A thin volume has appeared, of essays on her work ... another one is rumoured to be in the offing. (80)

Selena, so much undervalued during her life that she degenerated into the pathetic figure Richard runs into in 1980, is posthumously transformed into a minor icon - into cultural property. Her reputation is constructed after her death by scholars whose primary concern is with their own reputations.

In the remainder of this article, I will discuss two further stories from Wilderness Tips which extend Atwood's commentary on the creative arts by exploring the literary and artistic heritage of Canada, and the ways in which contemporary Canadians respond to it.

The malevolent north: "Death by Landscape"

"Death by Landscape" explores Canadian art and culture primarily through intertextual links with paintings by the Group of Seven, the best-known of all Canada's artists; and existing criticism of the story concentrates on this aspect. But "Death by Landscape" also has subtle connections with Canadian wilderness writing and with the literary criticism which has attached to it, and this will be the focus of the present discussion. The first paragraph of "Death by Landscape" introduces Lois, who is the centre of consciousness, and indicates her fear of nature: "Lois has moved to a condominium apartment ... She is relieved not to have to worry about the lawn, or about the ivy pushing its muscular little suckers into the brickwork, or the squirrels gnawing their way into the attic ... This building has a security system, and the only plant life is in pots in the solarium" (Wilderness Tips 105). Lois's desire to have nature under control, or to create a civilised space from which it is shut out, corresponds to the much-discussed "garrison mentality" which was a staple of certain brands of Canadian thematic criticism in the 1970s. It was initially defined by Northrop Frye as a characteristic of the literature of colonial Canada: a need to build fortifications both literally, against the encroaching wilderness, and figuratively, against the unknown. Critics such as John Moss and DG Jones expanded on this notion, applying it to texts from all periods of English- and French-Canadian literature. In comparison with the genuine terrors of the Canadian wilderness, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (hostile natives, disease, wild animals, the rigours of the climate), Lois's anxieties about the intrusions of squirrels and ivy seem comically trivial. Atwood's invocation of the garrison concept functions as parody in the sense described by Linda Hutcheon: "I see parody as operating as a method of inscribing continuity while permitting critical difference" (Theory 20). The continuity inheres in Lois's attitude to nature, which has affinities with that of many colonial writers; and the critical difference is to be found in the spuriousness of Lois's fears, cocooned safely as she is in her luxury condominium.

Nature invades Lois's flat indirectly, however, when she hangs her collection of Group of Seven landscape paintings there: "Looking at them fills her with a wordless unease. Despite the fact that there are no people in them or even animals, it's as if there is something, or someone, looking back out" (106). Lois's unease reflects her direct and terrifying experience of the places represented in the pictures, and a flashback section of the narrative recounts her experiences as a thirteen-year-old at summer camp. Thus the story enters into the remembered Algonquin Park landscape (which was a favourite setting for the Group's work), and the reason for Lois's fear of nature is revealed. During a canoe expedition, she and her close friend Lucy left their party to climb up a high lakeside lookout point. Lucy disappeared from the top of the rock, and her body was never retrieved. Consequently, Lois cannot believe that Lucy is really dead, and is unable to exorcise the memory of her: "She was tired a lot, as if she was living not one life but two: her own, and another, shadowy life that hovered around her and would not let itself be realized" (127).

As an adult, Lois believes she knows where Lucy is: "She looks at the paintings, she looks into them. Every one of them is a painting of Lucy. You can't see her exactly, but she's there, in behind the pink stone island or the one behind that" (128). The coloniser's and the painters' view of landscape as empty and uninhabited is overlaid by Lois's post-colonial fear of the unseen, alien presences which haunt the forest:

these paintings are not landscape paintings. Because there aren't any landscapes up there, not in the old, tidy European sense, with a gentle hill, a curving river, a cottage, a mountain in the background, a golden evening sky. Instead there's a tangle, a receding maze, in which you can become lost almost as soon as you step off the path. There are no backgrounds in any of these paintings, no vistas; only a great deal of foreground that goes back and back, endlessly, involving you in its twists and turns of tree and branch and rock. (128)

This passage differentiates clearly between unthreatening, European visions of landscape and sinister Canadian ones.

The idea of the haunted wilderness is another key element in 1970s Canadian thematic criticism. The best-known book devoted to this topic is probably Margot Northey's The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction (1976), but Atwood has herself contributed to this variety of criticism in her essay "Canadian Monsters" (date) and in two critical books: her influential study Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972) and her 1995 collection of lecture transcripts, Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature. In Strange Things she argues that Canadian writers have endlessly reworked ideas about "the uncanny lure of the North and the awful things it could do to you" (17). The title "Death by Landscape" signals the story's connection with this Canadian tradition and also recalls one of the primary motifs of Survival. One chapter of Survival is entitled "Nature the Monster", and its epigraph is a quotation from Northrop Frye: "I have long been impressed in Canadian poetry by a tone of deep terror in regard to nature" (Bush Garden 225). In this chapter, Atwood discusses a method of disposing of literary characters which she terms "Death by Nature":

Death by Nature - not to be confused with "natural deaths" such as heart attacks - is an event of startling frequency in Canadian literature; in fact it seems to polish off far more people in literature than it does in real life. In Death by Nature, something in the natural environment murders the individual, though the author, who is of course the real guilty party, since it is he who has arranged the murder - often disguises the foul deed to make it look like an accident. (Survival 54-55)

Which, of course, is precisely what happens in "Death by Landscape". The narrative self-consciously revises Atwood's earlier take on the subject, but it would be too simplistic to suggest that she writes naively in Survival and knowingly in Wilderness Tips. The passage quoted from Survival exhibits an amused scepticism about literary figurations of malignant nature, and this scepticism prefigures the tone of "Death by Landscape". The story offers a parodic version of the haunted wilderness, taking to its logical limit the idea of nature as monstrous. While the "Death by Nature" stories cited in Survival all kill their characters by a relatively plausible means, such as drowning or freezing, Lois believes that Lucy was simply "polished off" by some unidentified force in a haunted forest: "Who knows how many trees there were on the cliff just before Lucy disappeared? Who counted? Maybe there was one more, afterwards (128). Lucy is figured as a tree and simultaneously as a ghost capable of haunting Lois, and thus Lois paradoxically identifies a natural entity with a supernatural one. It is almost as if she has imbibed the whole complex of Canadian nature-as-monster myths and used them to interpret both her past experience and her present anxieties."

So there were books here!": "Wilderness Tips"

The title story from the Wilderness Tips collection explores a different set of Canadian wilderness myths, in which nature is envisaged as pure and sacred rather than monstrous, and the disaster motif is replaced by one of survival. The story concerns four Canadian siblings, Pamela, Prue, Portia and Roland; and a Hungarian immigrant named George. George, formerly Prue's lover, is now Portia's husband. The five are staying at Wacousta Lodge, a log house which was built by the family's great-grandfather and named after the protagonist of the Canadian author John Richardson's novel, Wacousta; or, The Prophecy (1832). The location of the cottage is presumably some part of Ontario's "cottage country": the area where "Death by Landscape" is set. The story opens with Prue smiling alluringly at George: "The smile is an invitation, but it's not something George will follow up on - not here, not now. Later, in the city, perhaps. But this lake, this peninsula, Wacousta Lodge itself, are his refuge, his monastery, his sacred ground. Here he will perform no violations" (196). George, a Hungarian immigrant, has imbibed the North American ideal of the wilderness as the seat of innocence and purity, defined against the corrupt and polluted city. The virgin forest trope so common in American and Canadian literature is cherished by George, the outsider, although it is rejected by the Canadian Prue. George wants to anchor himself in the mythology and history of his adopted country: "He treats the possessions and rituals of Wacousta Lodge with a tenderness, a reverence, that would baffle those who know him only in the city ... he loves traditions. They are thin on the ground in this country, but he knows one when he sees one" (197).

George is fascinated by the great-grandfather's cult of wilderness living, and bows respectfully to the portrait of this ancestor every time he enters the washroom (198). He approves of the old-fashioned equipment of this room: only a sink and ewer. The great-grandfather, who built the house in the early twentieth century, apparently furnished it according to his mental image of late-eighteenth-century colonial wilderness cabins, (which were themselves modelled upon English hunting lodges of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries):

Pamela is complaining again about the stuffed birds. There are three of them, kept under glass bells in the living room: a duck, a loon, a grouse. These were the bright ideas of the grandfather, meant to go with the generally lodge-like décor: the mangy bearskin rug, complete with claws and head; the miniature birchbark canoe on the mantlepiece; the snowshoes, cracked & drying, crossed above the fireplace; the Hudson's Bay blanket nailed to the wall and beset by moths. (200)

The phraseology in this passage - such as "bright idea" and "lodge-like décor" - suggests that the great-grandfather has produced a slightly unconvincing imitation. He has also appropriated elements of native Canadian culture and transformed them into aesthetic objects. This was also done by eighteenth-century colonists, as is clear from Wacousta in which the heroine's apartment is decorated with "numerous specimens both of the dress and of the equipments of the savages ... the skins of the beaver, the marten, the otter, and an infinitude of others ... [and] a model of a bark canoe" (Wacousta 292). The protagonist of Richardson's novel is himself an imitation: an English nobleman who reinvented himself as the dreaded Wacousta and fought on the side of the Indians in Pontiac's uprising. As Coral Ann Howells points out: "Wacousta stalks like a totemic ancestor behind ... George, the immigrant opportunist who has ... reinvented himself as a prosperous English-speaking Canadian" (Margaret Atwood 34).

George, even further removed than the great-grandfather from the age of conquerers, colonists and pioneers and from the genuine culture of native peoples, mentally builds what he thinks of as a tradition of wilderness existence, but ends up with a pastiche of styles, artefacts and texts from different periods. George does not distinguish between traditional methods of wilderness survival with no protection from starvation or wild beasts and the art of living in a summer cottage with no plumbing. Neither does he distinguish between the time when Wacousta was written (1832), the time when it is set (1763) and the time when the great-grandfather borrowed its name for his house. 1832 was the era of Victorian pioneers compelled by poverty to emigrate and attempt to survive in the wilderness. In 1763, on the other hand, the British presence in the Canadas was composed of military officers and their families, mostly of upper-middle-class origin. Their hunting lodges would not have been permanent homes but bases from which to plunder the forest. George's flattening of historical time implies his desire to root himself in Canada by somehow possessing its past, rather than trying to understand its specificities. He simply feels that "Wacousta Lodge is a little slice of the past, an alien past. He feels privileged" (200-201). Or, as Prue puts it, "George likes old stuff" (199).

In a significant passage, George enquires about the origin of the house's name: "'It's named after some stupid book,' [Prue] said. ... 'Ah?' said George, adding this item to his already growing cache of local traditions. So there were books here, and houses named after them!" (203-204). Once again, the sisters exhibit much less reverence for tradition than George does: "when he asked about the subject of this book it turned out that none of the women had read it. ... It's on the bookshelf in the living room,' the mother said indifferently. 'After dinner you can have a look, if you're all that fascinated'" (204). The great-grandfather's copy of Wacousta is shelved beside a number of other books: "From Sea to Sea, Wild Animals I Have Known, The Collected Poems of Robert Service, Our Empire Story, Wilderness Tips" (205). Coral Ann Howells offers a detailed analysis of this list:

Their titles trace the genealogy of this indigenous Canadian tradition ... When looked into, this tradition is revealed to be the invention of white male English-speaking colonialists who were fascinated by the wilderness with its alien forests and animals and its Indian lore. However, it is the last book on the shelf which highlights the ambiguities of this tradition, for Wilderness Tips, that most authentic-looking text which is described in detail with its date (1905), author's photograph (white male, paddling a canoe) and summary of contents is actually a forgery. The book is Atwood's own invention ... This forged 'Canadian signature' raises the question of what authenticity might mean when the tradition finds its most complete representation in a pastiche text which is indistinguishable from an original. (Margaret Atwood 35)

George, trying to assimilate the literary tradition of Canada alongside its other traditions, reads all the great-grandfather's books, and is intrigued by Wilderness Tips with its boy-scout attitude to the forest, its instructions for lighting fires in rainstorms and its "lyrical passages about the joys of independence and the open air" (206). These ideals are, of course, the invention of white male colonisers, but it emerges that Roland took them for "genuine" Indian lore, and cherished Wilderness Tips as a child:

It was the summer he wanted to be an Indian, because of Wilderness Tips. He used to sneak that book off the shelf and take it outside, behind the woodshed, and turn and re-turn the pages. Wilderness Tips told you how to survive by yourself in the woods - a thing he longed to do. How to build shelters, make clothing from skins, find edible plants. ... There was a lot about the Indians, about how noble they were, how brave, faithful, clean, reverent, hospitable, and honourable. (212-213)

The young Roland, like George, wanted to be part of a culture different from the one he belonged to, but his vision of that culture derives from a "noble savage" mythology generated by white people. Nevertheless, he retains this longing as he grows older. He loves chopping wood at Wacousta Lodge, and "feels alive only up here" (210). Roland is searching for what Atwood refers to in Strange Things as "a pre-formulated idea of wilderness", and he fits her description of "those who long for authenticity by identifying with the wilderness" (Strange Things 57).

Roland and George both cling to the myth of the nobility of life in the wild, but by the end of the story George has succumbed and performed an act of desecration after all, by having sex with Pamela. George's liaisons with the three sisters reinscribe the feminized representation of wilderness and the parallel between sexual possession and colonization, but they undercut the ideal of the purifying return to nature which is present in much modern Canadian wilderness writing, including, of course, in Margaret Atwood's own 1972 novel, Surfacing (see Howells, Margaret Atwood 23-32). Indeed, Surfacing seems to belong on the cottage shelf alongside Wacousta, Wild Animals I Have Known and the rest, since it has a central place in the tradition of wilderness writing to which "Wilderness Tips" responds. Surfacing is concerned with the symbolic value of wilderness: with ideas of regeneration and also gendered figurations of forest. But "Death by Landscape" and "Wilderness Tips", while revisiting the geographical and imaginative territory of Atwood's earlier writing, are far more self-conscious about their literary antecedents than Surfacing is, and incorporate critical commentary into their own structures. Atwood's intertextual play with prior Canadian texts effects the inscription of her own book into a tradition of Canadian wilderness writing, but simultaneously questions that tradition and demonstrates that it is in need of revision. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the orientation of the short stories should have more affinities with Survival and Strange Things than with Surfacing. In Survival Atwood analyzes the so-called "Death by Nature" motif which she finds in many Canadian texts. In Strange Things she explicitly discusses "the written North - the North both of cliched image and of more serious literature" (88) and asks "what happens when women writers choose the wilderness as a locale? What becomes of the body of imagery built up by male writers ...?" (4). In "Death by Landscape" and "Wilderness Tips" she offers a fictional exploration of "the written North" and demonstrates - rather than discussing - what happens when women writers choose wilderness settings. For all their mockery and deconstruction of wilderness mythologies, the two stories present Canada's cultural past as something precious, and its literary wildernesses as places which a Canadian writer can continue to explore. The concern with the national literary heritage in these two stories is amplified by Atwood's preoccupation, in "Isis in Darkness" and elsewhere in Wilderness Tips, with the Canadian literary scene and the status of the writer in Canadian society. The stories are self-conscious about the experience of authorship, since they meditate explicitly on the practical aspects of writing and cultural production and also explore the literary and artistic heritage of Canada. Wilderness Tips explores the mythologies established by earlier Canadian texts, including Atwood's own, and also offers a sophisticated evaluation of Canada's intellectual climate in the decades since 1960.